Wednesday 24 March 2010

Female (1933)

Director: Michael Curtiz
Star: Ruth Chatterton

You can tell how old this film is because it's set at an American car manufacturer. Sales are slipping at the Drake Motor Car Company so it's still topical, but the business is run by a woman so it has to be a precode. She's tough too. Some guy rattles on and she shuts him up unceremoniously. 'You've all got statistic poisoning,' she tells them. 'Your business is to sell cars.' And that's it. End of meeting. She's Alison Drake, the daughter of the previous CEO or whatever they called them in 1928 when he died, leaving her the only one with enough of a clue to take over. Since then she's grown cold and cynical by her own admission. Now she deliberately treats men the way men treat women. Harriet Brown, an old schoolfriend, remembers her as a romantic soul. She's on her second husband and third kid. Alison Drake only has a car company. A husband? 'I'd rather have a canary,' she says.

She's happy having George P Cooper for the night, the new guy on the board played by Johnny Mack Brown. He's only been with the company for sixteen days and he's been trying to meet with her for most of that time, but now he's caught her eye she invites him over to her house for dinner. They have a great time, once she persuades him that she doesn't want to talk business in the slightest and slings a cushion suggestively onto the floor to make her point very clear, but next day when he sends her flowers she summons him into her office and tells him in no uncertain terms that the only thing that she cares about there is business. He gets a bonus while Briggs, the last guy, gets a transfer to Montreal for telling her that he loves her.

Sexual harrassment worked both ways back in the precode era and this is definitely the sort of women's picture that couldn't even be floated a year later. Drake is the antithesis of the all American wife and mother that would soon be epitomised by Myrna Loy. If we were in any doubt as to what she would think about such a character, she gifts us with a blitz of very precode lines. 'A woman in love is a pathetic spectacle,' she comments. She tells a married colleague, 'You wouldn't have these problems if you were a fallen woman.' When she finally gets the one man she wants and he proposes, she turns him down because she wants to carry on a fling instead. 'Marriage isn't for me, for us,' she tells him. 'After all, we can be so happy as we are. Don't let's spoil everything.'

This man is Jim Thorne, in the form of George Brent, the real life husband at the time of Ruth Chatterton, who plays Alison Drake. This was the fourth of their four films together in only two years. They had married in between The Rich are Always with Us and The Crash, both released in 1932, but their big hit was 1933's Lilly Turner and this was the inevitable cash in on the successful pairing. She's very much the lead character, as the title would suggest and hers is the only name above that title, but he's the man who conquers her. He's an engineer, who has invented the automatic transmission or whatever gadget she needs for her new car, and so she steals him away from the competition for a two year contract. 'Unethical my foot. What's that got to do with business?'

Of course she doesn't know what Thorne looks like, so when she skips out on a party at her own house because she's fed up with all the unearned compliments, naturally he's who she tries to pick up at a shooting gallery. He isn't having any of it though. 'I don't take pickups home,' he tells her. Of course she takes him home, after he finally discovers that the girl who seems to be everywhere he is is really the boss, but he isn't having any of it there either. He's immune to her vodka, because he's worked in Russia where they brush their teeth with it. He keeps talking business even when faced with the most outrageous hints to quit and sweep her off her feet instead. Even when she does her cushion trick, sprawling invitingly for him, he turns her down flat. He's not going to do the boss just because she wants him to.

And so he becomes everything she wants. After all, the other men are all 'flattering, conniving, kowtowing,' and she's fed up with the lot of them. She even gives up on one conquest after he emotes that she's like a goddess, basically because she just can't face popping his cherry and dealing with the emotion at work afterwards. The only man she's safe with is Pettigrew, who is effectively her right hand man at Drake Motor. Initially I thought that was because he was gay, because after she notably looks her prospective conquests up and down, he notably does the same thing, but he does seem to have a thing for Miss Frothingham too though so perhaps he's just bisexual. He admires his boss immensely but when he tells a colleague, 'She's the only real woman I've ever met,' it isn't to get into her pants.

George Brent knew how to handle women. After all he survived a tumultuous two year relationship with Bette Davis, though he didn't become one of her four husbands. Davis, who had supported Brent and Chatterton in The Rich are Always with Us, waited a whole five days after they married to marry her first husband, Harmon Nelson. Tell me that was coincidence. Marriage is what really sets the fireworks going in this film. After Drake finally hooks Thorne by playing the needy card at a company picnic at which he's the only invitee, life is fine for a while, but he's an honest old fashioned man and so naturally proposes, only for her to burst his bubble. 'I suppose you think you're too superior for marriage and love and children,' he tells her, 'the things that women were born for.' Yes, he actually said that, to his own wife, no less.

The script by Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola, suggested by a story by Donald Henderson Clarke, is as fast paced as you could imagine for a film that runs only a whisker over an hour and it's as outrageously quotable as any precode I've seen. You can tell that just from the gems I've referenced here, but trust me, there are many more. Yet the dynamics of human relationships are rather broadly painted, and that's an understatement. Chatterton runs the gamut from queen of all she can see to needy and incapable little girl and she's far more successful at the former than the latter. 'If you weren't so pathetic, you'd be funny!' Thorne tells Drake at one point, but he should have brought that one out a few scenes earlier. He doesn't just bring her to her knees, he turns her into a useless puddle of goo. To be fair she comes out of it, unlike some other films of the time, and the picture is female run through and through up until Thorne conquers her, but as always, it should have ended a couple of lines before it does.

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